Posted by: Kate | April 16, 2008

Behaving Badly

I’ve had the opportunity, in the past little while, to observe some Very Bad Behavior: kids acting in defiant, entitled, or cruel ways, and parents with varying reactions. Sometimes I’m able to brush it off, to remind myself that I’m getting a blurry snapshot of a much larger moving picture and that anyone attempting to define my parenting skills by any one moment could walk away with wildly different opinions simply based on what meal I decided to serve for dinner. Other times I’m able to remember that some of the best parents still create socially and behaviorally challenged children, because hey, guess what? It’s not all about the environment and actions. Genetics matters, too. Once in a while I feel sympathy, and on particularly dark days that sympathy is paired with a sneaking sense of relief: Oh, I am so glad I’m not the only one.

Today, not so much. Today, I watched a 15-year-old add another layer of pain and stress to her already emotionally scarred mother, both of whom played large and central roles in creating the circumstances from which they’re now trying to escape. Today, I listened to an acquaintance describe the antics of her toddler, a child that sounds simultaneously bright and monstrous in her sheer uncontrollability. Today I watched a not-yet-two-year-old wreak appalling destruction on a booth at Friendly’s, and moments later I watched the mother of a 10-ish-year-old threaten bodily harm to her son if he didn’t listen to her.

And you know what?

It’s not funny. Not in a giggling, whoops sort of sense, or in a wry kids-will-be-kids style, or even in an embarrassed wave of self-consciousness. Don’t look at me with a smirk, a grin, or a fake-pout, at least not if you’re hoping for a shrug or a snicker in response. When a blip of vocabulary or an impulsive flail is a shock to both the child and the parent, then there is a certain humor in the surprise value. But when it becomes a larger trend, when you expect public tantrums or avoid routine activities because of accumulated past experience, it’s not funny anymore. And as stressful as it might be to the parent, it’s got to be that much worse for a kid to already feel like life is an out-of-control experience. Shouldn’t childhood be one tiny window in which we can blithely pretend like someone’s in charge?

And it’s not inevitable. Kids are going to push the rules some days, and sometimes they’ll push so far that you know something’s going to break. But when the pushing becomes so constant that you feel odd on the off days, when a simple meal or a polite exchange leaves you surprised and a bit breathless, then perhaps it’s time to reevaluate. There’s a million different right ways to parent, so if one isn’t working – and to me, “not working” happens when family life is stressful more often than it’s enjoyable – then try another way.

Or don’t. Keep doing exactly what you have been doing, blame it on your child’s unbendable will or your own exhaustion or your belief that your parenting is the single right way to do things for your kids. That’s all fine, too. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to dredge up some admiration for your perseverance in the face of apparent mediocrity. Tomorrow you can shake your head at my parenting style, or offer a dozen reasons why my kids and myself could use some fine-tuning, and maybe I’ll listen.

Just not today.



  1. Bravo Kate! You just said what I think (soooo many times, in fact.)

    Can you imagine having to life your life this way??

    “when the pushing becomes so constant that you feel odd on the off days, when a simple meal or a polite exchange leaves you surprised and a bit breathless”

    It’s sad.

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